WASHINGTON – Democrats trying to head off the opening of an Alaskan wildlife refuge for oil exploration lost the year's first skirmish Thursday as the Senate Budget Committee voted to clear the way for drilling.
By a 12-10 vote, the Republican-led panel voted to forbid Senate filibusters against legislation later this year allowing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (search). Filibusters (search), a procedural delay, require the votes of 60 of the 100 senators to end -- a margin that drilling supporters create jobs.
The fight came as Republicans pushed their 2006 spending plan toward committee passage. Like President Bush's budget and a similar plan the House Budget Committee approved Wednesday, the Senate fiscal outline would shrink record federal deficits over the next five years by trimming domestic spending while cutting taxes and buttressing defense and anti-terrorism efforts.
At both panel's meetings, Democrats criticized Republicans for budgets they said would hurt the poor, students and others. They said deficits would be worse than the GOP was projecting because their plans were omitting the costs of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan beyond 2006, easing the alternative minimum tax's effect on middle-income earners, and Bush's goal of reshaping Social Security (search).
Overall, the Senate plan requires other Senate committees to write bills by June carving $32 billion in savings from Medicare (search), student loans, farm programs and other benefits over the next five years. Reflecting the House's more conservative tenor, its budget calls for $69 billion in such savings, nearly $20 billion more than Bush proposed.
The Senate budget also orders $70 billion in five-year tax cuts and gives them a procedural shield from filibusters. The House plan gives such protection to $45 billion in tax cuts, but House leaders say they plan to produce the full $106 billion Bush wants in tax cuts.
The full House and Senate plan to vote on their budgets next week. In April they will try to craft a compromise that eluded them last year because of a tax-cut fight that produced a stalemate.
Congress' budget sets overall spending and tax targets while leaving specific revenue and expenditure changes for later bills.
The House budget did not specify where the benefit reductions would come from. But based on the House committees assigned to find the savings, the Medicaid (search) program for the poor and elderly could be targeted for up to $20 billion in five-year cuts -- more than double Bush's plan -- plus other reductions for student loans, welfare, farmers and veterans.
By law, benefit programs grow automatically to cover inflation and population growth. While overall spending for these programs would grow under the GOP budgets, growth would be slowed through lower benefits, lower payments to providers or smaller numbers of recipients served.
Both budgets would hold domestic programs except benefits to just less than last year, with decisions on specifics to be made later. They would push Pentagon spending to $419 billion, growth of 4.8 percent, with a smaller increase for anti-terror programs at home.
Following last year's record $412 billion deficit, the House projects a 2006 shortfall of $376 billion and the Senate a $362 billion gap. Both chambers claim to meet Bush's goal of halving the deficit by 2009, though their starting point is Bush's overestimated 2004 shortfall of $521 billion.
The two chambers see deficits dipping close to $200 billion by 2010. That is the last year covered by both plans, just as the baby boom retirement is expected to start driving shortfalls higher again.